Vicious battles ahead after court OKs partisan gerrymandering
Only a handful of states now have a strong enough Democratic majority to completely redraw congressional maps, though that may change after the November elections.
The 2003 Texas redistricting generated intense partisan distrust, with Democratic legislators fleeing across state lines to prevent the plan from passing. DeLay himself was later indicted on charges of illegally steering campaign contributions to Texas Republicans.
"If the lines are changing every two years, there's going to be a voter backlash," says Rick Hansen, an election-law expert at Loyola Law School. "The more it looks like the legislators are protecting themselves from competition, the more they could suffer at the ballot box."
A more likely scenario, says Robert Richie, director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, is that parties will tinker with individual districts, as has already happened in Georgia, rather than redrawing maps wholesale. "We certainly will see more of it," Richie says.
The DeLay plan itself was a response to the post-1990 redistricting in Texas, which favored Democrats, even though statewide and presidential polls showed the state trending strongly Republican. After the 2000 census, the two parties couldn't agree on a new map, and the task fell to a panel of federal judges. When Republicans gained control of the state government in 2003, they redrew lines once again.
Only two justices, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, found the entire plan to be unconstitutional. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said the court should not hear partisan gerrymandering cases at all. The two newest members of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, declined to decide whether the court should ever hear such cases but ruled that there was no constitutional violation here.
On the Voting Rights Act claim, Kennedy, joined by Breyer, Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter, held that the redistricting impeded Latinos' ability to elect candidates of their choice in Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla's district. The redistricting moved 100,000 Latino voters, who have become both more politically active and less likely to support Bonilla, out of Bonilla's district. in order to shore up support from Anglo voters
"In essence the state took away the Latinos' opportunity because Latinos were about to exercise it," Kennedy wrote.
The Voting Rights Act ruling, considered a surprise by many court-watchers, could be used to limit partisan gerrymandering, particularly in states like Texas where minorities tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. "I think the court is clearly troubled by these cases," says Nina Perales, the attorney for the Latino plaintiffs. "In a way, this is a roundabout way of setting some limits. The court is saying the state's policy cannot justify the effect on Latino voters."
But, for now, there seems to be little chance of a successful direct challenge to partisan gerrymandering in court. Says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, "Those who are concerned about the way districts are drawn should abandon the courts."